Copyright is held by the author.
SUZIE WAS PREGNANT again. She kept a bowl of crackers at her bedside table, and as Grandma July suggested, to avoid morning sickness, Suzie didn’t get out of bed until she had a few. Even on a half-full stomach, Suzie, a thin girl (no taller than Grandma July and she had a crooked spine), puked almost every morning. All the while, Joe cursed from the other side of the washroom door.
“It’s a girl,” Grandma July said. “That’s why there’s all this trouble. Girls are like that. Giving you cramps, sickness and what not.” Grandma pointed to Suzie: “And the shape of that belly, just like a pear. It’s a girl all right.”
Her hands on her tummy, Suzie looked at the little bump. From her angle, it looked like she had swallowed a whole apple not a pear. To have a girl would not be the least of her problems. A boy would make things better — maybe. Maybe, Joe, still cursing at the breakfast table, would be pleased to have a grandson and start talking to her properly, like looking straight at her face not anywhere else, as if she was cursed or something. Who knows? Those were all possibilities to live for.
“Where is that Boozy now?” Grandma July put some scrambled eggs on his plate. Not waiting for Suzie to answer his question, Joe loaded his mouth with a forkful and turned to Grandma July. “No one says nothing? Let me tell you. He is not coming back. None of us will see that son of a bitch again. Mark my words.”
“Joseph,” Grandma July yelled, holding the wooden spoon in her hand like a sort of medieval weapon. “Enough! That man is the father of your grandchild and the husband of your daughter. At least, you have to show some respect to Suzie.”
“Grandchild? What grandchild? How do we know that this one’s OK?”
Dropping the wooden spoon into the pan, Grandma July, not looking agitated but like a determined state judge, slapped the bolding head of her son. Taking the hit and keeping his posture upright on the chair, Joe got up. Not looking at either woman, he walked out the door where his truck was parked. Her face more tender now, Grandma July took a couple of steps towards Suzie and hugged her. In her arms, she felt the girl quiver.
“Everything is all right, honey. Don’t listen to that mule. ’Cause mules don’t know anything. Your baby is just fine.”
“What if it’s not?” Suzie, with a rising need to puke now, said, her voice broken. “What if this one’s not OK either?”
“Hush, honey. Lord will hear you. The first one was a stillborn because the Lord wanted it that way. We can’t judge him, can we? But this one’s going to be all right. Believe me.”
What if God wants another dead baby? Suzie wanted say, but her words drowned inside her. If only Henry was here, if only he hadn’t left without letting her know where he was going or for what.
Washing the dishes and the once silver-coloured pan, Grandma July talked about when she was carrying Mary, Suzie’s only aunt who passed away in an accident 20 years ago. How when pregnant, Grandma July did all the housework by herself, took care of little Joe, and, for a few bucks, worked at home on sewing jobs. She had had this constant cravings — the worst for this certain brand of candy. A friend of hers from the church choir had brought her this little tin box of Montpensier Sweets with a picture of a bowl on the lid,. The bowl was filled with grapes, apples, and pears while two lemons — one sliced in half — lay next to the bowl.
“How I loved that tin box. I don’t know when I lost that thing. Moving from one place to another, I lost track of it.”
“Oh, I have a tin box like that too,” Suzie said. “Something mum left behind.” Then Suzie stopped talking and went back to drying the wet plate with the now quite damp and greyish dish cloth. Suzie didn’t know exactly why she stopped talking about her Hershey’s tin box, whether it was because she didn’t want to give away her secret stash or start a conversation about her mother with Grandma July. She hoped Grandma July assumed the latter. That would be much better.
“We should clean the shed today,” Grandma July said after a moment of silence. “We should get started before the first rain falls. It’s already September. I expect it will rain in a week or two.”
Suzie just nodded.
“There’ll be a lot to get rid of. All that junk, rotting, dusting in that little cabinet of your dad’s.”
“Should we ask him first? You know how attached he is to his things.”
“If we wait for him,” Grandma July waved her hands, palms up. “Before you know it, it will be another year. Somethings are better off this way.”
They spent the whole morning emptying the shed, hand tools and stuff spread all over the backyard, sweeping the concrete but uneven floor and deciding what should be dumped in the garbage bin. Just before lunch, Grandma July said they should take a break and Suzie went inside to her and Henry’s bedroom. An irritating feeling had hung in her brain since the morning; she took out the Hershey’s tin box from under the mattress.
Opening the lid, she was shocked to see what was inside — or rather what was not inside. She ran for the bathroom, but could not reach the toilet or sink in time. And no matter how many times Suzie begged, Grandma July did not let her clean the floor afterwards. She told Suzie to go lie down. She was carrying a baby, and that was all that was important.
The office was on the second floor of a semi-detached brick building. There was a butcher’s shop on the first floor and Henry climbed the narrow steps next to the shop’s door. He ran into Collar Frank, the big guy, who was standing next to the frosted glass door on which Mr. O’Reilly’s company name was scripted in gold with black shadowing: O’Reilly and Sons Mining Corp.
Henry saluted Collar Frank with a nod.
“Nice mustache, Frank,” Henry said but the big guy didn’t reply, or smile, or wink. Instead, with his head, Collar Frank pointed to the sole chair in the corridor. Collar Frank waited for the few seconds he assumed sufficient enough (as if all visitors were supposed to wait for that long before entering Mr. O’Reilly’s office), then knocked on the glass door twice.
“Yes, Collar?” called the man inside. The guy was called Collar, because, some say, Frank had been a cop once, though, currently, he showed no signs of being a man of justice. Still, Henry, considering the consequences, never imagined himself calling Frank Collar. But to Mr. O’Reilly, Frank was always Collar.
“Your two o’clock appointment is here,” Collar Frank said. Collar then moved back to the place he jad been standing a few moments ago.
Just like the building, the office was smaller and shabbier than Henry expected. Taking O’ Reilly’s business into account, Henry expected a nicer place with better furniture and wallpaper. An old chair with a dark green cushion faced the heavy desk. Henry stood waiting until Mr. O’Reilly, who was taking deep puffs from a cigar while holding a long match to the cigar’s end, pointed to the chair. Henry sat down.
“Henry,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “I wasn’t expecting you before…” He reached for a denim-covered notebook and turned a few of its pages. “Ah, yes, November. So, what’s new?”
“Wait, wait, wait… We still have the agreement, right? Don’t come to tell me that we don’t have the agreement anymore. It’s all in this damn contract.”
Henry waved his hands as if avoiding a flock of flies. “Sure, Mr. O’Reilly, sir. We have the agreement. It’s just that…”
“It’s just what, Henry? You’ve got something new?”
Collar Frank knocked on the door. Henry turned his head toward him.
Mr. O’Reilly said: “Get me some coffee, Collar. But I don’t want that crap from the corner coffee shop. I need something strong. That curry chicken I had for lunch is killing me.”
Collar Frank, questioning, moved his head toward Henry.
“Henry doesn’t want anything, Collar. He’s not going stay that long, are you Henry?”
“No sir, I don’t want to take up too much of your time.”
Collar Frank shut the door.
“You were saying?”
“I was saying…”
“That something came up…”
“The thing is, Sir, I might need another advance payment, before…”
“Before what?” Mr. O’Reilly roared and the door opened. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, get me my coffee quick, Collar. I’m dying here. My stomach is filled with shit and you’re still lingering.”
Collar Frank closed to door again and Henry watched his silhouette behind the frosted glass disappear before he turned back and saw Mr. O’Reilly standing in front of the file cabinet next to his desk.
“Where is the God damn contract?” he said going through the binders. “Your name is Crowell, so it should be at C.”
Henry remembered the day he signed the contract at Wilson’s Bar as clear as a kid remembers the first slap from his father.
“Mr. O’Reilly, sir. Please don’t look for the contract. I know what’s in it…”
“You know what’s in it and you still come here asking for more money. Is that right?” The man looked furious, like the sky before the storm. “This mining business. You all think it’s a piece of cake. Just dig and make a load of money, right? But you don’t know shit about the closed market, the middlemen’s cut, who to bribe for permits. You just know to ask for more.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t want to take your time up.” Henry stood.
As Henry started for the door, Mr. O’Reilly kept on shouting behind his back. “Don’t come back before November. You hear me? Don’t come back before you do what you’ve been told to do!”
Behind him, Henry closed the glass door as gently as Collar Frank had done a minute ago.
“Asshole,” Henry murmured. “When was the last time this company did mining for real?”
“He’s walked out on her. Clear as daylight.”
No matter Grandma July did, Joe kept on harassing Suzie. Why, Suzie didn’t know. Well, she could guess, but that would be one more thing to worry while there were more important things to worry about. Henry hadn’t come back yet, and it had been three days. Three full days.
“I better check the drawers. Might be something missing somewhere.” Joe was acting like a grey-top coated detective in movies.
Like there was anything of value anywhere in this house, Suzie thought. But once Joe had the upper hand, he would not stop bickering.
Grandma July sent Joe out of the house a bit early that morning, letting Suzie rest in bed. Joe left talking about how hard he worked to make the house a safe place to live in and how his own kin welcomed in any trespassing looter without thinking. Shouting, Joe stomped past Suzie’s bedroom door before leaving the house for the day. Suzie heard a voice, the banging of an empty tin can hitting the hood of a car, as Joe’s truck left the driveway. A moment later Grandma July was at the bedroom door, looking at Suzie, who lay with the blanket up to her face, as if she had just been tucked in for the night.
“Won’t you get up this morning, dear? It’s time. Breakfast is getting cold on the table.”
“Give me a moment,” Suzie said, her face broken.
“If it’s morning sickness again, I can fetch the bucket for you.”
“Don’t bother, Grandma. It’s not. I’ll be up soon.”
Smiling like she was supposed to, Grandma July left, but that did not solve Suzie’s problem. Tuesday, two days ago, had been laundry day. How was she going to clean all her sheets and her nightgown now without Grandma noticing? She took a deep breath and spent a few more seconds thinking. She got up, took off her stained nightgown, pulled off the sheets, balled everything up and threw them in the hamper, covering the heap with her blue shirt from yesterday. Then, like an ordinary thing — as if drawing a bucket of water from the old well — she checked herself, under there, where her skin was painted a darker shade, the colour losing its strength in lines down her legs.
In the loo, she cleaned herself up fine, using a piece of white cloth she kept in the drawer next to her bed, and afterwards hid it as well in the hamper, which she still could not manage to sneak out of the room. If only she could take it to the shed or someplace else to hide, she would have a chance to do the laundry herself once Grandma July retired for a nap in the afternoon. Of course, Grandma July would ask why she had washed the sheets again, but she’d figure out how to answer that question later. Not now, Suzie thought. There were many more things to handle now.
The smell of salty fish in the kitchen jolted Suzie’s stomach, but Suzie recovered fast.
“Here, have some eggs, darling,” Grandma July said. “I know it’s hard for a pregnant woman to eat scrambled eggs in the morning but it beats oatmeal, and you sure need your strength.”
Grandma July had the glimmer of the early sun in her yellow eyes. Since she was small, Suzie had realized the strength of those old eyes. She could rely on Grandma July, who, despite her many years, would not die as long as you needed her. She was an old woman the first day she stepped in their house, the day Suzie’s mother left for good, and still she was just that old. She hadn’t changed in years.
“Then after that, maybe you can help me peel those potatoes.”
“I thought we would clean up the house today,” Suzie said.
“Oh, not today, darling. You know what? You can even lie down after breakfast. Let me take care of the dishes and everything, even the potatoes.”
Just by looking at the old woman’s face, Suzie knew something was hidden behind.
“And don’t worry about those sheets, honey,” Grandma July said. “I’ll take care of those as well.”
Suzie wished she could stop weeping, but she couldn’t. She cried day and night like that was the job someone paid her to do, and she knew Grandma July didn’t like it one bit. Suzie wished Henry was here so that he could take her to a doctor and then there would be no reason to burst into tears, but that wasn’t reality.
“It’s been three days, Grandma. I don’t think he’s coming back. What do you say?”
“God knows that much, darling. He might be coming back or not. Either way we have to get you to a doctor. Now you go and rest.”
Suzie left the half eaten eggs on the plate and headed for the bedroom. At the bedroom door, she turned back to talk to Grandma July about what Henry, well, stole from her. But, after a moment of hesitation like a rain drop collecting its strength before falling down to earth, but then suddenly hanging from the tip of a leaf, she decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to discuss Henry’s actions with the only person close to her. Grandma July might get it all wrong, while, maybe, oh God maybe, it was a total misunderstanding. The thing in the tin box, maybe Henry took it for a good reason that Suzie didn’t know about. How could she run the chance of calling Henry a thief when he may not be? If only he’d come back, knock on the door and say, “Here I am, pretty face. I’ve got it all covered.” Suzie would be so relieved. She would mention the bleeding to him, say it was nothing serious, lie and say that every pregnant woman experienced that kind of thing once in a while, but whispering that still maybe seeing a doctor wouldn’t hurt.
In the afternoon Suzie woke to a dog barking outside next to her open window. After the beast ran after a couple of boys down the street, everything was still, everything was quiet. She could hear in the backyard, the sheets flapping on the clothesline in the wind. The wind carried a sweet clean odour, a perfume Suzie liked since she was small. For a good half hour, the fine feeling remained.
I have to keep away from the tavern, Henry thought as he walked through the dark street. He could just make out the sign reading Shea’s Inn, but not the entrance to the place. But if you knew the place, you knew where the entrance was. Remembering the last time he had gone in the tavern and his recent encounter with Jason the Bookie, Henry decided to keep walking. If he strolled down to the harbour or, better, stopped before reaching the docks, chances were he’d come across Summers. Summers was reasonable — hard to convince but reasonable. Not anything like Mr. O’Reilly. Summers usually hung out at diners close to the docks where they served steak with beer. Classy places one might say. Not like those dusty bars where the best thing you can eat is fish and chips.
Henry tried the Blue Velvet and the Elephant. Both almost uninhabited, but both with enough dense air to choke a guy suffering from asthma. The Rocking Mule was no different, but Henry caught a glimpse of a young woman in a red dress sitting at a corner table, her back facing the bar and the other tables in the house. The girl was fanning the smoke away from a face that was quite familiar to Henry. It was a man in a suit — not a single ray of light illuminated his face. Henry could not remember the man’s name right away — Bartlett or Beckett or something like that. He willed himself to remember. His stomach felt like the bottom of a muddy lake.
Henry sat at the bar and ordered a shot. Turning his head towards the table in the shadows, he found himself gazing at the couple — not constantly though. He had been around for some time now and he knew what that would mean to a regular guy in a place like this. He ordered another shot and before the barmen could refill his glass with bourbon, the girl in the red dress sat on the stool next to him.
“Are you here all alone?” She asked. Her voice was soothing, though the encounter still felt bizarre.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
She smiled, but not because she was impressed by Henry’s answer. She had been asked to smile at Henry.
“I think,” she said, giggling. “I think… Do you know what I think? I think you’re spying on us.” She pointed her finger to the man in the shadows, or more generally to the table in the shadows at which sat the man sitting and sipping whiskey. Henry couldn’t see the man clearly, but knew the man returned Henry’s gaze.
Henry said nothing.
“I’m going to give you the benefit of doubt. But I think I’m right.” The woman in the red dress put her hand on Henry’s arm, dragging it towards her an inch or two. “You can come to our table though, and prove me wrong. You can state what your business is, here in this bar, late at night, watching a couple sipping their drinks peacefully.”
“I’m good.” Henry’s voice was shaken.
“Suit yourself, honey. You sure know better than I do. Let me get back and tell me friend what you said.” She stood up. “But don’t forget, I asked you to come. Didn’t I? I did. I sure did.”
The girl walked back attracting a few looks — glimpses catching the red dress and the body placed beautifully inside the glittering fabric. Henry sank back into his thoughts. Taking a sip from his glass, he turned towards the table. He stood up and paced the sticky floor in a few steps. Henry could hear the music box playing a song and his heart pumping a gallon of blood with each beat.
“You’re O’Reilly’s hired hand, aren’t you?” The man said.
Henry nodded. “I’m off duty tonight,” he said, wishing he could sweet talk better.
“You look like a guy who has the character for the job,” the man said. Brent… Yes, his name was Brent. He was one of the partners of Willey Corporation.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Henry said. “I just try to do what I am told. I work contracts.”
“What’s your latet contract about? Peeping?”
“No sir. It’s just…”
“It’s what?” Brent looked tense now; the woman in red dress was giggling. Henry tried to take a few steps back but he realized that she grabbed his arm.
“Caesar is going to take you out and you better follow him good,” Brent said. His voice was filled with pleasure, Henry realized. Henry’s arm was captured by a man now, not by the woman in the red dress. Caesar was a large man.
“I have no business with you sir,” Henry said, begging, “I was just… My cash was running out and I…”
Caesar took him out the back door of the bar, to a dark alley where cats pissed and drunken homeless men slept. Henry felt his cheek burning with pain after the first blow. After the second, he thought he had lost a tooth — in fact he hadn’t, it only got broken a bit, and the tooth had long need a filling. About to get back to his boss, Caesar spotted a ring on the dirty pavement. He kneeled and picked up the gold ring, with a diamond on its crown, to examine it.
“That’s mine,” Henry tried to shout, his voice had the strength of a whisper at most. He was reaching for the ring while Caesar closed his fist around it. “That belongs to me,” Henry said again.
“Why would a man like you have a nice ring like this in his pocket?”
“Long story… Please give me my ring back. It belongs to me. It sure is a long story.”
“Look at that,” Caesar said. “So this nice ring is yours. In your pocket and you wander around bar to bar to find some cash. Why didn’t you pawn it?”
“I can’t,” Henry said. “It’s very valuable to me.”
“Look here,” Caesar said, smiling and laughting. “The man with the diamond ring.”
He laughed some more before he stood up again. He tossed the ring into the darkness between them and the ring let out a few tinkling sounds before it settled on one side.
Henry crawled towards the ring, feeling the moist pavement with his hands, searching for the ring. He took a deep breath feeling its circle at his fingertips. He put the ring back in his pocket, got up and brushed dirt from this clothes.
Rick’s Café was just around the corner. It should be crowded by now and there was a black guy who played piano there on weekend nights, just like in the movie, exactly. If Henry was lucky, he would come across Rick himself tonight. Rick was a decent guy. He would lend him some, maybe. Or treat it like the advance payment of a job Henry would do for Rick in the future. Maybe, who knows? If only Rick was in. If only he was in a good mood.